|M.I.A aka Maya - Sri Lankan refugee turned London hipster
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|Author:||Rohan2 [ Sat Apr 09, 2005 8:55 pm ]|
|Post subject:||M.I.A aka Maya - Sri Lankan refugee turned London hipster|
M.I.A. plays double-dutch in a war zone
By CHRIS HERRINGTON
Arular - The debut album from 28-year-old Sri Lankan refugee turned London hipster Maya Arulpragasam, Arular is in the James Brown tradition of great pop lyrics: all slogans and exhortations. (Typical sample: "Pull up the people/Pull up the poor.") But where Brown survived the gauntlet of the Jim Crow South to become hype man for the civil rights movement, M.I.A.'s wordcraft is informed by a different struggle: third-world civil war survival.
Her dad -- the Arular of the title -- is a big shot with the Tamil Tigers, freedom fighters or terrorists depending on your perspective, and I won't pretend to know enough about Sri Lankan politics to have an opinion. She fled Sri Lanka with her mother and siblings as a preteen. Apparently, M.I.A. never lived with her father and hasn't seen him in a decade.
Given the third-world political themes, you might think Arulpragasam wants to be a Bob Marley-like figure, but listen close and she's almost as confused as you are. She never actively endorses the Tamil Tigers here (in interviews, she's described her dad as "insane") but obsesses over them and her dad's small role in the geopolitical circus, as you'd expect anyone with her background would. And this infuses her music with volatile imagery: Arular's songs sound like double-dutch rhymes as played out, defiantly, in the middle of a war zone. ("I got the bombs to make you blow/I got the beats to make you bang bang bang" or "You no like the people/They no like you/Then they go set it off with a big boom/Every gun in a battle is a son and daughter too.") Do little girls in Afghanistan or Iraq play double-dutch? Sri Lanka?
Also like Brown, M.I.A. embodies the pop promise that a brilliant musician doesn't have to be able to play an instrument or read a note. But the killer band she leads isn't made of flesh-and-blood sidekicks but consists of an electronic contraption called the Roland MC-505 Groovebox. This homemade electro-pop and secondhand hip-hop reverberates with echoes of dancehall, grime, and techno, Bollywood, Miami bass, and Brazilian favela funk. It's cobbled together from the blasted fragments of global pop culture, entirely received and not quite like anything you've ever heard. It's irresistible, and Arulpragasam knows it: "Everything that I own is on I.O.U./But I'm here bringing y'all something new."
Ultimately, Arular is as chaotic and overpowering -- and as classic -- as Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, the best hip-hop album ever and another James Brownian blast of beat science and political sloganeering. But there is one difference: Arular has a beauty and playfulness that has everything to do with the feminine perspective that Public Enemy scorned. For the past two months, this has been the afternoon dance-party soundtrack of choice for both me and my infant daughter. -- Chris Herrington
M.I.A says she had an idyllic childhood until the civil war intervened -- her father joined the Tamil fighters, and she and the rest of her family relocated to Britain, settling in a housing project in the south end of London. She blossomed in art school as a teen, and developed her own unique style of music -- a "do-it-yourself" aesthetic inspired by the British club scene, with stripped-down bass and drum rhythms driving catchy melodies.
M.I.A built her own tracks for the Arular CD at home on a simple sequencer, then enlisted the help of producers such as Steve Mackey, formerly of the British pop band Pulp, to help flesh out the final tunes.
|Author:||LankaLibrary [ Fri May 06, 2005 1:36 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Daughter of Tamil Tigers roars to the top of the hip-hop cha|
Daughter of Tamil Tigers roars to the top of the hip-hop charts
May 5, 2005
Tamil Tiger burning bright
@Copyright 2004 The Asian Pacific Post
Maya Arulpragasam, daughter of Tamal Tigers roars to the top of the hip-hop charts
As the daughter of a militant Tamil freedom fighter, Maya Arulpragasam had a childhood unlike those of most budding pop stars. In 1983, when she was seven and living in her native Sri Lanka, civil war broke out. Her memories of the time remain vivid.
“People are fighting, your mum‘s crying, the army‘s returned, your dad‘s missing, your cousin‘s dead,“ she says. “What do you do? You can‘t play out in the street ‘cause it‘s dangerous. I used to sit and draw.“ Arulpragasam‘s mother escaped to London with her three children in 1986. Their new home was a poverty-stricken public housing estate, but the middle child wasn‘t going to let anything stop her from pursuing her creative ambitions.
“In England your opportunities are predetermined by what class you‘re in,“ she says. “Coming from Sri Lanka, I just didn‘t give a shit. I was like, ‘No one‘s going to plonk me in the middle of somewhere and expect me to live like the dirtiest, poorest person in town‘, you know what I mean? I just didn‘t want to be a victim.“
She talked her way into Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in south London, where she studied film and fine art. A series of incidents led her to switch creative fields to music.
The cool older guys who lived next door on the estate had turned her on to the ferocious hip-hop of Public Enemy and NWA in her early teens. After art school, she worked and became friends with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann.
Through her, Arulpragasam met the provocative punkette Peaches, who inspired her to buy a Roland MC-505 drum machine. A holiday in the Caribbean gave her the final push.
“I kind of just wanted to work out why I wasn‘t musical,“ she says. “Cause so many people used to say that to me: ‘How come you‘re really, sort of, tone deaf? You can dance and stuff like that, you obviously love music, but … you‘re really bad at it‘. People wouldn‘t even let me sort of hum and stuff around them.”
Ironically, those very people may be having trouble stopping themselves from humming to Arulpragasam‘s debut collection of infectious beats and rhymes, which she recorded under the name M.I.A.
Her album Arular was named after her father‘s activist handle. It‘s a brew of the political and the funky, as heavily influenced by the dance-hall sounds of the Caribbean as by Arulpragasam‘s unusual, intense upbringing: a call to arms with crisp beats, fuzzy bass effects and unshakeable melodic hooks.
|Author:||Rohan2 [ Sun Sep 04, 2005 11:04 pm ]|
|Post subject:||MIA, myself and I|
MIA, myself and I
As a child, Sri Lankan singer MIA arrived in London minus her teeth, her dad (a Tamil tiger) and a secure future. All fuel for her first album, which has been met with universal acclaim and a Mercury nomination. Emma Forrest meets the new queen of hip-hop
Sunday September 4, 2005
MIA arrives, half an hour late, with multicoloured Snoopys on her baggy T-shirt. A short pink ra-ra skirt. Rasta theme flats. Immaculate Bollywood- groomed eyebrows. Long wrapped nails, Streisand style. Dishevelled black hair - the side-swept bun has the orange-blonde hue of a dye job aborted. There is metallic peach on her lids, lilac on her lush lips. And in her tiny hand, a giant bag of Taco Bell, preferred snack of the great American stoner, several of whom - Mos Def, Gang Starr - have their pictures hanging from the wall of Cornerstone management in New York. MIA's (as in Missing In Action) huge dark eyes do appear glazed but that could be from one too many photo shoots. The 28-year-old, aka Maya Arulpragasam, fresh from a heavily publicised show at Central Park Summerstage, is making a concerted effort to crack America. As she sits down, a gold-plated antlered deer swings from her neck, a winged horse hanging to her shoulders from her little ears.
The home-made dance album Arular has been nominated for the Mercury music prize, and the singles 'Galang' and 'Sunshowers' are receiving heavy MTV rotation. But it's her back story that people know before they know her music itself: Sri Lankan refugee, raised on Hounslow council estate, abandoned daughter of one of the leaders of the Tamil terrorist uprising. After Sociology A level, MIA lives in LA and then St Vincent. Goes to Central Saint Martins College of Art, becomes known for acid-pink graffiti stencils and is hired by Justine Frischmann to design Elastica album cover. Moves in with the post-comedown Britpop star. Encouraged by Justine's friend, DIY electro-clash star Peaches, MIA makes music in her bedroom on a shitty old Casio. Becomes the next big thing. On both sides of the Atlantic.
Her British press notes trumpet the 'organic' way in which The Fader, a cutting-edge US style magazine, put her on its cover before her album was even out. This is soon blown when you walk into the Cornerstone lobby and find that The Fader and Cornerstone share not only an office but also an owner. Size up her being a half-hour late, size up the gold antlered deer (what does it mean? I mean the winged Pegasus is whimsy, but the deer in gold? This endless deconstruction will be her albatross.)
Arular is minimalist, well-produced garage and deeply layered basement beats stripped to their bare electro tones. Since the music is completely synthetic - no live instruments - it allows her voice (which is reminiscent of hips shaking) to provide all the soul. Because her delivery is percussive it adds another layer to the beats. There aren't a whole lot of melodies, but there is endless dancing to be done. You can see why Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor wants to work with her and why Timbaland will be producing her next record.
It's not that she's brilliant live - not yet. She's still feeling her way as a performer. On stage at New York hip-hop club SOB's, she seems at her most comfortable talking to the audience between songs. So it follows that the tape recorder is barely placed on the conference room table of her management at Cornerstone before she's talking a mile a minute. And, like a street politician, there's not one superfluous sentence. Her vision and vocabulary (emotional and otherwise) are where she really lives up to the hype.
'I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody's bad bits and say, "Actually, they're good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?"'
When she, her mother and sister first arrived on the west London estate in the early Eighties, malnutrition had left Maya without most of her teeth. One of her last childhood memories of Sri Lanka is having her gums cut open with rice grain.
'They don't even do it fast, it took 45 minutes. But I wanted teeth so bad ... you don't understand.'
She came to Britain waiting for them to grow in and would hold her lips over her gums, staring long hours at herself in the mirror. Her mother, who recently became a born-again Christian, told her the more she looked in the mirror the uglier she would become. She already felt pretty ugly, fleeing Sri Lanka for England just in time to get spat at in the streets.
'I came at the end of punk. It had trickled down, like culture eventually does, from the inner cities. Spitting on the street was normal and acceptable and I took the brunt of it. My friends in Britpop talk about how important their first punk album was. But beer spat in my face aged seven: that's how I got introduced to punk. They came up with a lot of aggressive shit that I got to experience.'
She was also the smallest kid in the whole school, let alone her year. 'I had short hair and everyone thought I was a boy until I was 16. My sister was gorgeous, she looked like Neneh Cherry. Light-skinned, red lipstick, corkscrew curls. West Londoners, east Londoners, they'd hang outside school to look at her. She'd be like, "Maya, can you just go and hide?"'
The girls were raised as if their father were dead. The founder of Eros (Eelam Revolutionary Organisation), he trained with the PLO in Lebanon, and was in one of four different factions set up in the Seventies to try to achieve an independent Tamil state for the tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean. The Tigers were the largest group, but every time Sri Lanka got close to peace the four would fight over who would become leader of the Tamil nation. Thousands of boys died at the hands of the Tigers.
'The Tigers killed two groups off, leaders and kid soldiers included. When it came to my dad's group he said, "I don't want to kill off all these boys for the sake of an ideal." He gave up and walked away, and Eros eventually disintegrated.'
Though she remembers the soldiers in their house, bouncing her on their knee, saying: "Tell me where your dad is," she remembers little of her father himself. He has been in contact recently but, says Maya, 'I don't want to start that relationship and then have to go on tour. I've read about what he did and people come out at Tamil conventions to tell me how great he was. But because I was raised by my mum, I got to see behind the scenes of a person like him.' Far from falling in love with an activist, her mother met her father through an arranged marriage, having been told he was an engineer. 'Ever since she was a baby she was raised to be the housewife that all Sri Lankan women are meant to be. She couldn't play out the fantasy 'cos she didn't have a husband. Him going away was worse for her. All the women were like, "He didn't even die? He just left you with two children, what's wrong with you? not allowed him starting a revolution, he isn't at home!"' When Maya reached womanhood herself, she decided, like Marianne Faithfull reading William Burroughs and deciding to become a drug addict, that, having fallen in love with hip-hop, she was going to move to South Central LA and become a gangsta's bitch. It was a move both rebellious and reactionary.
'I'm glad I went that far into it. I was the best hoochie on the West Coast at the time. I had the best clothes 'cos I was coming from England and really good at shoplifting. I had Versace on before Lil' Kim started rapping about it 'cos the only place I could steal at was Harvey Nicks, where it was sooo easy. So I studied, like, the whole thing out in Compton: how the best you could do is be there for your man, be really good at sex, throw barbecues in the park, have babies and keep that unit together with the money that you get.'
Her exoticism rested on the fact that she was the same colour as her neighbours but she had 'European' hair. People would tug on it when she was in line at McDonald's. The girl with no teeth liked being princess of the hood. And having achieved princess-dom, she quit it all to head back to Sri Lanka for the first time. If LA was all sex, all about upping the ante, here was a place where the telepathic romantic signals on buses were so strong she felt she could cut them with a knife.
'There are no clubs or bars, no places for young people to meet, flirt, get together. A Bollywood love song comes on the bus radio and every girl and boy is secretly saying, "This is about you!". It's so powerful. It's not how I learned to do it in England but I respect it. To serve your sexuality up as a dish or to completely hide it? I liked making sense of that, having both co-existing within me.'
It seems to confuse the audience at SOB's, who aren't used to hearing such sexy music sung by one so physically demure. She thanks them for all black music has given her: 'It was in the Caribbean that I smoked my first spliff and it was there I decided to do music!'
But the audience - all black - are unimpressed with her story of 2002's musical awakening.
At Central Park she had been paired with DJ Rekha, a Bhangra pioneer in the city. At SOB's she is one of five new artists playing for Hot 97, the urban radio station famous as much for music as for the gun battle outside its office between Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown. This audience don't understand why she's covered head to toe in a baggy Sri Lankan print blouse and billowy trousers with its flashes of green in the print, which turn out, on closer inspection, to be the Incredible Hulk's fist. It could be that a more viable market for her is through mainstream pop.
'Could be. Maybe. Listen, last time Britain sent over anything that really worked in America it was a transsexual dude singing reggae.'
Still, she tells me at Cornerstone, she feels at home in New York. 'All the good cheap food?' I joke. Her eyes widen.
'That's seriously important. In Britain no one can afford to live. You know how miserable bad food makes you? I found that out in Notting Hill when I discovered the secret of how rich people feed organic chicken to their cats. I was like, "Your cat has got better skin than me 'cos I eat not allowed trash chicken from the petrol station."'
By 'Notting Hill' she is referring to her time on the sofa as roommate of Justine Frischmann. Her relationship with Frischmann appears complex. She has her own place in Bermondsey, still talks to 'Jus' once a month and is grateful they wound up together, if only so they could wind each other up.
'She used to be like, "Maya, you're so desperate. I can't help you because you're too desperate."
I couldn't stand up to Jus when she said that 'cos obviously she comes from a really privileged place. But one thing Britpop always banged on about was the Sex Pistols and they came out of desperation, so don't gimme that shit.'
And yet Frischmann was the motivating factor in Maya going to her bedroom with her Casio, collecting the lyrics and melodies she had written in her four-month trip to the Caribbean island of St Vincent, and daring to make music for the first time - and more importantly, to find out if she could even sing. Meanwhile, she was working in a call centre selling computer software to people in Ohio. She'd once worked the same job in LA.
'At least when I go to my shift there the work environment could be fun. At least Yolanda and Tricia and Kevin are telling you what they did last night. There's life and interaction.'
I ask if she feels, as an artist, more Sri Lankan than British. Perhaps, even, more American?
'No.' She crumples her Taco Bell wrapper.
'Not at all. As an artist I am definitely British. So British, I hate it.'
She slurps unhappily at her jumbo drink.
'The first thing you learn growing up in Britain is how to bitch about yourself. That's the nation's concentrated psyche. You want to bust out of there 'cos it's terrible. Am I really shit enough? No, I can't be any shitter than I already am - I've been a refugee, I've been spat at, they've called me every name under the sun; what more do you want?'
I ask her to name something joyful about living in Britain and she furrows her brow so hard, a wave of metallic eye shadow dances on to her nose.
'In England, when I see an old black woman on the bus singing out loud, who doesn't care about holding herself in, you just wanna hug her and give her a kiss and say, "Thank you so much for giving me that. In 24 hours in Britain today that's gonna be the best thing that happened to me."'
With Arular, she has recreated that woman singing out loud in public. And sung loud enough, and long enough, Britain has come round to it big time. On the walk from the offices to her hotel, sequinned bag swinging from her Snoopys, I ask if, spending time away from London, she cares about winning the Mercury prize. She stops in her tracks.
'What happens to an artist if they are relevant, if they do bridge the gap between England and America and the rest of the world, if they do explore new music? What happens to that artist? Put it out there on a plate among all the rest of them and then we'll see which one England chooses. Then we'll know where we stand and at least we can start being honest.' Her Pegasus earrings catch a tiny heatwave breeze. 'We'll take it from there.'
· MIA's new single, 'Galang', is released in October
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